LOS ANGELES — Bang, bang, the Houston Astros are not dead. Not buried. And much to the chagrin of the team’s numerous detractors, they are not even yesterday’s refuse.
The Astros took the sharpest arrows from a bloodthirsty Dodger Stadium crowd twice this week and still emerged with the best record in the American League. With each inflatable trash can tossed onto the field and through earsplitting, disparaging chants (“Cheaters! Cheaters! Cheaters!” and worse), these Astros continued to put distance between themselves and the franchise’s sign-stealing scandal.
It was a rollicking two nights in Los Angeles, where fans are still convinced that their team was the victim of a 2017 World Series heist. They had waited four years for the chance to personally scream as much to the Astros.
They were disappointed after the series opener, in which Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. struck out nine in six and two-thirds innings in a 3-0 shutout. But then, on Wednesday, Max Scherzer not only made his Dodgers debut in a 7-5 win, but he also ingratiated himself to his new fan base by striking out Jose Altuve three times. Over seven delightful innings followed by a curtain call, Scherzer did everything but bring an apple to his new manager, Dave Roberts.
“Probably one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in,” said Mookie Betts, the team’s All-Star outfielder turned part-time second baseman, who smashed two homers Wednesday. “That was pretty amazing to be a part of. I definitely will put that in the memory bank.”
By the time the final boos had faded and the public enemies Altuve and Carlos Correa had left the building, one could dream of a Dodgers-Astros World Series rematch come October. It would be terrific news for sellers of novelty garbage cans, and the crowds this week — 52,692 and 52,724, the two largest in baseball this summer — would be of interest to Major League Baseball.
“That was playoff atmosphere, you know?” Astros Manager Dusty Baker, himself a longtime Dodgers player, exclaimed after Tuesday’s game. “These fans are in love with the Dodgers all these years. They indeed bleed Dodger blue. It was exciting.
“Not often would I love to play in a game because I’m so far removed from playing, but this was a game I would enjoy playing in.”
There are only six Astros left from their 2017 championship team, but Alex Bregman (out since June 16 with a quadriceps injury), Justin Verlander (out for the season after Tommy John surgery) and first baseman Yuli Gurriel (neck stiffness) have been off the field, and McCullers is a pitcher. That leaves Correa and Altuve to be the faces of the scandal and magnets for the vitriol of opposing fans.
“You have no choice,” Baker said of the season-long booing. “You either thrive or you succumb to it. If you succumb to it, then the crowd has won. You have to support and thrive for each other. It’s sort of a survival tactic.”
Correa takes pregame batting practice in the indoor batting cages around the league, so fans don’t get a crack at him until game time. Altuve, on the other hand, hits on the field, which means the boos and catcalls start early for him and the volume increases exponentially the rest of the evening.
But as the season nears the stretch run, the Astros are becoming more steeled. Only San Francisco has a better record in the majors. Before Scherzer took down the Astros on Wednesday, Houston’s 43-25 record against teams with winning records this season represented both the game’s most wins and best winning percentage against opponents better than .500. And the Astros led the majors in runs scored (583) and on-base percentage (.341) and had struck out the fewest times in the majors (804).
Pariahs, yes. But also perennials.
“It takes a special player to put an Astros jersey on,” said Blake Taylor, a second-year reliever. “If you’re not willing to withstand the craziness in every stadium we walk into, every time you walk onto the field, if you can’t handle it — it’s a tough gig. And the crew we have right now is all in on it.
“Every single person in this clubhouse gets booed in every stadium, gets called cheaters, and at the end of the day we have each other’s backs, we endure it. It takes something special to wear Astros across your chest.”
Nobody has waited as long as Dodgers fans to exact their vengeance on Houston.
On Tuesday, Neal Brown, 41, and Josh Johnson, 40, both of Simi Valley, Calif., showed up in jerseys created by Brown’s daughter, Samantha. A script “Trashstros” crossed the chest, and “Bang Bang” stretched across the back shoulders over the number 17 (for 2017). The friends said they purchased tickets the day they went on sale.
“We were coming no matter what,” Brown said.
The fact that McCullers started the series against Walker Buehler in front of Oscar the Grouch and “Cheaters” T-shirts (and more) was wholly appropriate, given McCullers’s ties to the 2017 team, his feisty personality and the raw emotions jangling in the stadium like cut power lines.
During his pregame meeting with catcher Martin Maldonado, McCullers told him he wanted to attack the strike zone, “put them on their heels, I want to overwhelm them.”
Scherzer, with 10 strikeouts and a fastball averaging 95.2 miles an hour that was a few ticks above his season average, essentially did the same thing a night later. His acquisition, along with infielder Trea Turner, was more statement than trade, in the vein of the old “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” Yankees under George Steinbrenner.
Scherzer, who had no-trade powers, agreed to go after a conversation with Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo in which Rizzo spoke of needing to “retool” the organization. Once that decision was made, Scherzer, 37, said he gave Rizzo a small list of teams to which he would agree to go. Driving factors: He wanted to stay in the National League for the rest of the season because of his familiarity with the hitters, and he wanted to pitch for a warm-weather contender.
The curtain call, he said, was the first of his career, “a cool moment and one I’ll never forget.” It was pitcher Clayton Kershaw who nudged him out of the dugout, telling Scherzer to give the fans “what they want.”
“At that point, the crowd was going nuts and I wanted to go tip my cap to appreciate what they did,” Scherzer said. “They brought an unbelievable energy tonight, and that’s fun to pitch in front of. You live for this.”
Though the Dodgers let the fans do the talking, there is little doubt the disdain between these teams is genuine. In May, when the Dodgers visited Houston, Justin Turner posted a photo on Instagram in which he posed in front of a trash receptacle at Minute Maid Park with Betts nearby. The caption read, “Comments welcomed!!”
Then Houston was conspicuously absent at the All-Star Game in Denver last month. All four Astros named to the American League team were scratches, with many outsiders concluding that Altuve, Correa, outfielder Michael Brantley and closer Ryan Pressly simply didn’t want to risk awkward situations with their A.L. teammates.
“Four guys all take a pass on the All-Star Game? I think that surprised everybody,” Roberts, who was the N.L. skipper, said this week, while noting that one of his players, Betts, had also been scratched to nurse an injury.
Pitcher Joe Kelly, who wasn’t on the Dodgers when they lost the 2017 World Series, called the Astros “snitches and rats” last year, threw behind Correa in September, then subsequently mocked Correa with a pouty face, which spurred a bench-clearing incident. Kelly was elevated to folk-hero status afterward with a giant mural on the side of an L.A. barber shop commemorating the incident.
Kelly reprised neither his recklessness nor his poetry a year later, entering in relief of Scherzer to a thunderous ovation but surrendering a Correa homer. Down, 7-2, the Astros could have rolled over. They didn’t.
The players have mettle — that’s what the Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, now a special adviser to Houston’s owner, Jim Crane, has noticed.
“These guys play, boy,” Jackson, who was in town for Tuesday’s game, said. “They play, they play, they play. They play hard.”
He added in one of his favorite quotations, which he originally said about himself: “They don’t boo nobodies.”
The big crowds sent each team thundering forward in its own pennant race.
“When the atmosphere is not like that, we have to continue to play with urgency and take some accountability and do it ourselves and not worry about the crowd,” Betts said about the Dodgers, who continue to chase San Francisco in the N.L. West.
Someone asked Baker, the Astros’ manager, about his familiarity with Scherzer — he managed the Nationals and Scherzer in 2016 and 2017 — and he dismissed the notion quickly.
“I can’t tell you that,” Baker said. “Because it’s like, Scherzer reads everything. We may have to face him again, hopefully in the World Series.
“Why would I tell you what I know about him if it’s going to help him beat us? He doesn’t need any help.”
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